“Prospects for Korean as an International Language”
Guest Report for Circles and Squares
November 29, 2012
Living in Korea, I often hear things like this from boosters or those within institutions:
l “Hangeul should be used by more languages around the world. It’s possibly the most regular and best alphabet ever invented. I predict that one day it will be used everywhere.”
l “Korean can become a true international language.”
l “Korea is moving up, and one day we’ll be number one!”
l “Don’t you think Korean food is the best in the world?”
l “Korea is the most convenient country in the world. It’s the best.”
Often, when these themes are framed as questions, there’s an implicit assumption that if you disagree, you’re a critic, and critics of Korea who aren’t accepted as ideologically proper Koreans are dismissed or viewed with hostility. The opinions of many questioning Koreans, let alone foreign-born Koreans and foreigners, are often not welcome. From a foreigner’s perspective, I’ve found that in personal life, it’s socially dangerous to be anything but hopelessly positive about Korea or Korean culture. In theoretical or academic discussions, a similar veil descends over many people, blinding them to what seems to be something more accurately approaching reality.
This is not a uniquely chauvinistic attitude. Many cultures practice the same see-no-evil-hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil social proscriptions, and there’s a general show-our-best-face attitude to most human societies. It’s an odd and very recent quirk of many Western societies that public self-criticism is now tolerated in places like my home, Canada. Even two generations ago, this wasn’t the case among intellectual circles there.
But when it comes to specific questions, brave pronouncements about the future of the Korean language often presume that people will suddenly be overwhelmed by the reasonableness of adopting Hangeul, as if foreigners will find this line of reasoning equally compelling. It makes sense for the whole world to just spontaneously adopt Hangeul. Of course, then there’s the seemingly more reasonable idea that Korean, as a language and a culture, will become a major international language of trade.
Korean culture and people are very close to my heart. Because of this, I try to engage the culture beyond its bland superficialities. Alas, this means that I bump up against a lot of sacred cows. Among these, I hear arguments like those in my short list quite often. And I think they’re wrong on basic premises. The reasons Koreans can honestly propose them go beyond mere cultural enthusiasm. There’s a delusional quality to the arguments for these notions that deserves some exploration.
Languages and Power
Languages become international fixtures for a whole host of reasons, including market power, religious significance, political influence, state affiliations, academic and cultural “soft” power, sheer numbers and current military strength. Having a long and successful imperial history and a few conquests don’t hurt a language’s chances, either.
And there’s a practical reason why places like Japan haven’t adopted the Roman alphabet: it’s not that great an idea. Japan is very well-served by its quirky dual syllabaries and Kanji. For English, these would be a disaster, but for Japanese, they work well.
Hangeul is well-designed for Korean. Its characters bunch together into syllables, perfect for a syllabic language of this nature, and its sounds closely approximate the spoken sounds of Korean. While it’s true that they used to do a better job, as spoken Korean has changed a lot since King Sejong’s invention, they work a lot better than Latin letters work for English. Our own native writing system, if you want to grace runes with that name, didn’t really have much of a chance.
Even though we use a Latin modification Greek characters, English and most Indo-European languages are pretty-well served by them. Indo-European languages aren’t properly syllabic. Alphabets they use make far more sense than a cluster of Hangeul letters arranged in syllabic blocks. Also, Latin gave its alphabet to a whole host of languages and is used for English for a whole host of historically important and relevant reasons, not least being that it unites the languages of western Europe. This is why alphabet reform has always been a moot point, and it’s ultimately why English or French or a host of other languages are not well-served by being written in Hangeul. Going forward, even using Hangeul for previously unwritten languages is impractical, given the predominance of Latin letters.
Appreciating Korea As It Is
I think it’s a bad idea to get carried away with general boosterism when it inflates Korean expectations. This either ends up looking chauvinistically patriotic, silly or disingenuous, and when accepted makes unlikely expectations seem realistic.
It’s this failure to appreciate what foreigners might be interested in that renders Korean tourism promotion more or less a humiliating catastrophe. Koreans have no idea what to say about Korea. If some government agency manages to do something right, most of the time this happens purely by accident.
The quest for higher social status and approval in Korea is part and parcel of modern Korean identity, and this extends to comparing Korean culture to others. Korean officialdom doesn’t seem able to accept that some of the things they don’t want to talk about or don’t think are relevant are actually profoundly interesting to outsiders. Who wants to come to Korea to hear opera? Why come here for beaches when the Philippines are next door? Sure, Korea has some very modern buildings, but urban life all over the world is largely the same. In the quest to out-New York New York and be a better Shanghai than Shanghai itself, Koreans ignore what makes Korea great.
For example, there are dozens of fantastic stone-age ruins scattered around Korea, but Koreans show no interest in their own history prior to the Joseon Dynasty. Ancient history is largely ignored. I’ve wandered fantastic archaeological sites in southern Korea, usually along with a few excited and admiring foreigners, but almost every time I’ve been I’ve rarely seen a Korean face. If it’s not shiny and new with a designer label on it, Koreans don’t seem interested.
Another tragic example is Pimatgol, the old “hidden street” behind Jongno used to avoid having to kneel before passing nobles. In most other countries, this charming winding gem of history would be celebrated and kept clean, if mystically unmodernized, but because it’s not an airy, elite Hanok district or former residence of kings or princes, it lies in uncelebrated decay, always threatened with permanent demolition. It’s this resistance to celebrating anything uncomfortably old or not associated with elite culture that permeates the Korean attitude to their own history. This has a tendency to limit Korean officialdom’s ability to appreciate what makes Korea truly unique and worth exploring.
This attitude encapsulates much of what frustrates me, personally, about how Koreans understand their own nation in a global context.
Korea can celebrate how Korea is unique, but few want to do this, instead making inapt comparisons. Koreans don’t need to compare their language to English or Chinese to feel pride. There’s nothing wrong with Finland or Finnish, or Denmark and Danish.
I understand this instinct. I understand it because I come from a place that suffers from it almost as much as Korea. For Canadians, there’s no point in comparing Canada to the US and feeling shame or pride. The US is so utterly different, there’s no reason to conclude that we’re innately inferior or superior. We’re unable to bury our language gripes, had historical trouble recreating Manhattan in the north, though we’ve had more success lately, and we haven’t created a colonial empire. But by the same token, feeling superior is also unwarranted. We inappropriately blame the US for failing spectacularly all the time when managing its own domestic political squabbles, when it fails to develop healthy cultural and race relations, or seems incapable of creating a medical system that isn’t both bloated and inefficient and also savagely unfair. The truth is that both countries have such different compositions, structures and social environments that it’s not even fair to compare crime rates.
When Koreans get upset that English or French or even German are spoken more than Korean, or have more prestige in the music world or at an academic conference, it’s very similar to hearing Canadians in Winnipeg complaining that Los Angeles has the world’s biggest movie industry by profit and Winnipeg doesn’t. The comparison and the shame, or pride, is irrelevant. And the converse is also just as irrelevant, when it takes the form of unmerited pride. I’ve heard a Korean say that Korea has the best kimchi, and the Chinese and Japanese can’t do it as well. My response is that I damned well hope Korea makes the best kimchi, because anything else would be humiliating. There’s nothing to be proud of there.
So projecting an unrealistic future for Korean as a new global language is, I think, part and parcel of this misplaced and ultimately self-defeating boosterism. Once unrealistic expectations aren’t met, inevitably there’s disappointment, which is as unwarranted as the enthusiasm originally was.
Korea is what it is. It is a successful, if not brilliantly successful second-tier country on the marginal fringe of Asia. Why does it need to be anything else? The obsession with advancing to NUMBER ONE! NUMBER ONE! is a cultural quirk that becomes a self-defeating pattern outside the confined world of making cars. Koreans have to lose the giant chip they resentfully carry on their shoulder and stop trying to compare themselves to a place like China. Korea will never be as important, as exciting, as diverse or interesting as China. China will always be bolder, brasher, more interesting, and it will always get by far the larger share of tourists.
Korea may not even be able to overtake Japan in the cultural stakes. Why bother trying? Why not be happy as a very interesting alternative? Why not make Korea the best at what it is – and let history take it where it’s supposed to go?
There’s no need for false dreams. Realizable dreams usually get you to places you truly need to be.
Korean as an International Language
Korean can’t become an international language on any significant level. Here’s the hard and uncomfortable truth.
In Asia, Korean is eclipsed to the point of near-total obscurity by Mandarin. Korean isn’t as obscure as, say, Mongolian, but this isn’t saying much. It’s still buried on an international scene, even when compared to Japanese.
Interest in Japanese and Japanese culture in the West remains powerful and there’s a lot of motivation to learn about Japan. In addition, there’s been over a century of intense and very intimate cultural contact between the West and Japan. Though Japan is far off the traditional beaten Asian track, it remains the focal point for many non-Asian views of Asia, often eclipsing even China. This seems patently absurd, if not insulting, to many Chinese, especially in academic or elite circles. Japan is often considered at least China’s cultural equal in the West. It gives Chinese culture and language a very serious run for its money. This never fails to infuriate someone in China.
And yet, the reason for this is fairly obvious. Despite its “island” attitude, Japan engaged the rest of the world, and the world reciprocated in kind. And Japan started a while ago. That head start is hard, though not impossible, to beat.
Hallyu! And Korea’s Hidden Faces
Here’s an almost sacrilegious thought for these parts.
Korean cultural “waves” themselves are, in truth, wholly unremarkable, when viewed on an international level.
Most countries with Korea’s level of clout are able to pull off this kind of thing as a matter of course. Famous musicians, even genres of music, TV shows, movies, literature in translation regularly make waves outside their comfort zones. Think of Morocco and West African nations and their impact on music, especially in Western Europe, in places like France. There are tiny regions of Morocco with ridiculously exaggerated cultural clout in the music world, and African countries that go unknown except that their music informs the underbelly of whole tribes of French youth.
The same is true for Latin American nations whose sub-cultures would otherwise disappear into anonymity outside their mountain valleys or mate-sipping coffee houses. The Dominican Republic, the home of Merengue, is known for little more than beaches, yet millions of people, even in Gangnam and Hongdae, dance to Dominican music every night, though they may not know that it’s absolutely rooted in a culture so otherwise obscure to them they couldn’t possibly identify it.
We only think it’s the “hallyu” is remarkable because it’s from Korea. Newspaper stories are always reporting on the ever-cresting Hallyu, always-just-on-the-verge-of-making-Korea-Number-One!. They do this not because some song or food is suddenly popular. They do this because of Korea’s sad history of cultural irrelevancy.
Korea has been a receding, isolated place for much of its recent history. It was a culture and country that aggressively declined to engage the rest of the world. It was so disconnected it became deliberately invisible, with only the occasional escapee – Hamel, for instance – to even indicate that the country existed at all. It was like a cultural black hole. Should you happen to visit the place, you may never be allowed to leave, so bent on preventing outside contact were the Joseon authorities.
What little disinterested interest either the Chinese or Japanese showed in the place was for an almost faceless nation on the margins of two worlds. Korea played the part of an ultimately irrelevant buffer culture. It was the Asian equivalent of a cultural banana republic, in the eyes of the Chinese authorities: little more than a part of China that China forgot to swallow. Chinese elites often rest smugly assured that in deed or word, at some point this absorption will eventually take place. The past Japanese view of Korea was even more insulting. Either Korea was irrelevant or it was a gateway to China. In and of itself, it wasn’t particularly interesting.
I’ve heard no end of Chinese people casually explain that Korean food isn’t unique, it’s just a local variety of Chinese food, and that this is true for the rest of the place, too. It’s a sort-of “China is the Real Asia” big brother attitude that Korea oddly accepted, much to its own unending shame in the eyes of the outside world.
Korea never engaged its closest neighbours in any concrete way, except when it had to respond to aggressive advances. Even when it did, its responses were timid and trepidacious, at best, usually resulting in more retreat from the world. There were exceptions to this, of course. There’s a reason there’s a massive statue of Admiral Yi in Gwanhhamun. Sadly, there are few other characters like him in the last 1000 years of Korean history. When it came to political influence and the battlefield, Korea was conspicuous by its near-total absence and the rapidity of its many surrenders.
Korean Language: To Be Number One?
The Korean language isn’t growing in importance around the world as a language of commerce, science, or culture. Ultimately, it needs to own one of these to become an international language.
I suggest that the exact opposite is happening. The rest of the world, and its languages, are becoming crucial for the success of individual Koreans and for Korea itself. Korea will succeed or fail based on how well it integrates with the rest of the world, not how well the world integrates with it
This reality is already felt everywhere in Korean society. Examine how successful bilingual Koreans are, all else being equal, with their automatic leg-up in Korea on anyone unfortunate enough to speak only Korean. This shows up how provincial “Korea-as-it-was” really is. That said, “Korea-as-it-was” helps ground and set the stage for what Korea can become. But Korea has to learn how to navigate much the same way a country like Canada did. You may not be at the front of the pack, … but this is not necessarily a bad thing.
Koreans seem to be bent on throwing away the best of their traditional outlook on life, that which made Korea unique, and keeping the worst, that which isolated and limited Korea for centuries. Fancy new buildings obliterate charming neighbourhoods, but official minds ironically remain trapped in crippling old ways of thought. This tortured blend of old and new, façade and reality, ambition and mediocrity explains much of the quixotic success and failure of parasitic megaorganizations like Samsung.
Korea’s only viable future lies in engaging the world. It has to face the sobering fact that after centuries of social and ideological isolation, it must do this mostly on the outside world’s terms. Individual Koreans know this in their bones, and make decisions accordingly, because if nothing else, modern Korea has learned that survival is its own reward.
Where Korea is successful, it molds itself to match what the world wants. When it’s genuinely successful, it injects some element of itself into the result. This is what creates true “value-added” cultural activity. Though this isn’t one-sided, this dance has always been on the outside world’s terms, dictated by the Chinese Empire, the Japanese, or by the various modern powers that affect it. For South Korea, this has been America and the West.
North Korea chose isolation, blind patriotism and “Juche”. The results speak for themselves.
I know I may have a skewed perspective, given that I’m not Korean, but my linguistic instincts suggest to me that far from becoming more important, Korean language is being set up to add to the wealth of other people’s tongues, rather than to become more important. It will probably render useful words, concepts and cultural artefacts to other languages, in much the same way ancient Briton did, or in later times, Welsh or Gaelic. If it’s unlucky, this will be in the manner of the marginal languages of Europe. It will become a flavor, and not a major one, in a feast cooked up by others.
This may sound extreme, and it might not be doomed to irrelevancy. But it’s unlikely to get out of a “supporting role” without a radical alteration in the current state of Korea, Korean culture and Korean fortunes. A few more factories aren’t going to cut it.
Personally, I don’t think Korean will share the same fate as these marginal languages – though I still personally hold out irrational hope for Gaelic. I think what will likely happen to Korean is what has happened to Swedish or Norwegian or Danish. And if Korean is exceptionally lucky, it can aspire to impact the world on the level of, say, Dutch.
These languages are not particularly international, but they lent words, concepts and cultural cues to other modern European and Western cultures. Korean could do the same. It could have a strong impact on local languages, like Chinese or Malaysian, but it could impact English, as well, given the close cultural contact between the two. With a large expat Korean community, places like LA and Toronto have the potential to act like potential nexus points for the infusion of Korean into English.
But unless Korea acquires a very large army, becomes a key international hegemonic power with the ability to enforce high-value social prestige, or acquires massive cultural cache value with a slew of World Wonders at its disposal and perhaps a Shakespeare or three, Korean has a future as an interesting but ultimately small regional language of serious import to only a tiny part of the world.
The creation of a Korean Empire would definitely assist the embiggening of the Korean language’s world.
The local restriction of Korean was sealed when Goguryeo was invaded, colonized and stripped in AD 668, and while Shila did well out of it, ‘Tang China did far better. But the news went from bad to worse.
Korea later enabled a ruling class with profound lack of vision and the world’s most navel-gazing, self-defeating ideology. After the loss of so much land and power, subsequent generations of more or less wholly incompetent Korean leadership failed to expand borders, to allow cultural creativity, to establish colonies or colonial interests of some kind, or even to make international commercial ties. Without trade contacts with the rest of the world, Korea languished. Innovation stalled. Despite a few notable milestones, much touted in Korea’s flashy new museums, Korea failed to have almost any cultural impact outside its own immediate borders. Indeed, much of the last 400 years of Korean history seems like a language/culture/polity in relentless retreat from the rest of the world.
How can Korean language add to the world when its speakers were afraid to leave the confines of their own towns?
For an alternative, consider Holland. It’s a much smaller country, with fewer resources, equally beset by enemies on all sides if not in a much worse position, and divided, with part of its nation lost to Belgium. Despite religious wars, foreign occupations galore, some of them lasting over 100 years, and living on a floodplain at the armed crossroads of Northern Europe, the Netherlands managed to carve out an empire in competition with the fiercest European tigers of its day. Even when they lost, they left descendant cultures in places as far-flung as Southern Africa. Are there any Korean versions of the Boers? Any Manhattans or Antilles?
To see how truly visionless Korea’s leaders were, consider the possibilities:
l Korea could have opened its borders when China was closed, making it the entrepot for East Asia when both Japan and China were hostile to the West and the rest of Asia. It might have been wealthier than either and become the Asian centre of learning, arts and culture with all that disposable cash. Of course, this would have meant freeing most of the peasants.
l It could have reversed centuries of foreign domination and expanded into its natural region north and west of the peninsula, an area which shares cultural and genetic roots with modern Koreans and was once Korea’s much larger cultural homeland. The locals may have welcomed – or been more easily “assisted” in welcoming – a larger cultural presence.
l It could have expanded further into Manchuria under the leadership of more skilled statesmen and generals than it had, with perhaps a more martial tradition, instead of descending into military obsolescence and decay in which it was incapable of self-defence or even basic public order, let alone expansion.
l It could have set up a far-flung trading empire, bartering goods from China and Indonesia in Zanzibar and Calicut, its ships famed from Africa to India. It could have traded with fishermen off the coast of Chile or settled a few people in Arnhem Land, perhaps founded a Singapore or three on Mindanao. It might have signed treaties with Sultans in Brunei or sought out the source of stick-lac and fine lacquerware in Vietnam.
l Instead of persecuting Buddhist monks and shuttering monasteries under the iron bootheel of a regressive, self-destructive Confucianism unknown even in China, it could have opened itself to the flow of ideas and cultural creativity spanning a vast culture zone from India and Sri Lanka to Afghanistan and far-flung village monasteries in China and Japan.
The truth is that Korea’s history is profoundly unlike that of Japan or China, or even the failed states of China that are now provinces of the greater Chinese empire. In an Asian context, Korea’s history is a history of pathological risk-avoidance, and consequently a history of almost unblemished failure to take advantage of opportunities. At every stage of Asian history, Korea chose the least ambitious, most socially repressive, most conservative option.
Under its Confucian forbears, Korea was like second of the three sons from the famous Christian story of the inheritance. The first son squanders the gold coin he gets, the second puts it under a rock and maintains it unchanged in the face of obstacles and opportunities, and the third invests it and has a big bag of gold coins when dad comes calling again. In this case, Dad is history. And history is no more interested in that kind of cowardly conservatism than the story’s putative father.
Koreans are among the most creative and talented people on Earth, but this is clearly in spite of the repressive current in Korean history. That creativity was able to breathe at all is a testament to the human spirit in the Koreans who managed to overcome.
False Worship: Joseon Decay
Korean culture as epitomized by the Joseon was an almost unending saga of crushing, stifling and oppressive fear of revolution. It valued unchanging consistency above all else. Its feudal nature meant that its highest goal was preventing the masses from exercising the least free thought or enterprise. It also meant that maintaining power was more desirable than development of any kind. Anything that disturbed the power or ideological structure was suspect.
Given the loss of opportunities Korea suffered, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the Joseon Dynasty and Confucianism was an unmitigated disaster for Korea. It was far worse than anything inflicted by any outside power. No Mongols or Japanese injured Korea and its culture more than the parasites who inflicted and perpetrated the self-abnegating torture Korea experienced under the rule of a vicious class of corrupt, small-minded bureaucrats. In their lack of ambition, lack of courage, and shocking lack of social curiosity, the bureaucracy of the Joseon guaranteed total Korean obscurity. If a Joseon bureaucrat was presented with this analysis, I’ll put money on him seeing this as a virtue, so pathologically stagnant were their feeble worldviews.
In a palpable sense, North Korea’s current polity is a continuation of traditional Joseon Korea. The structures may differ superficially, as well as the underlying philosophical justifications, but the tone and tenor remain the same, with the same underlying attitudes, and much the same results. If you want to see what Joseon likely felt like to live in, go on tour to North Korea and you’ll not be far off the mark.
Here’s a real piece of heresy. It involves Japan, so Koreans, please take a seat and have a cup of tea, first.
Here it is:
In a real sense, without meaning to do so and with no credit to their actions, the Japanese saved Korea.
They never intended to do what they ultimately ended up doing. In fact, the goals of the Japanese Empire were framed as reformist, but reform was a velvet glove wrapped loosely around the steel fist of colonial ambition. Koreans were set to become the Forgotten People under in a new Japanese Asian Order.
That said, the historical contingency of Japan’s relatively brief but very timely occupation effectively removed Korea from the mainstream of Asian history by occupying it during 50 critical years of transformation in Asia. What accidentally turned the occupation into an almost liberating experience was that the Japanese were expelled.
The southern half of the country avoided the fate that would almost certainly have embraced the whole place. Had revolution and its blood-soaked wake been allowed to take root in Korea in the 1920s-30s, Korea’s fate might have been truly in the wind. Tibet and Xinjiang might not have been the only “Chinese-sphere-of-influence” regions that were absorbed by an ambitious and self-justifying Chinese Communist army. At the very least, a Japanese-history-free-Korea might look a lot more like modern North Korea or worse. China would have been a lot less interested in keeping Korea independent as a buffer against American Japan and the US or the Soviet Union had Korea been under the foot of some Chinese-supported lackey. Think of Laos trapped in an Asian version of the Soviet Union.
The unfortunate fact of occupation meant that South Korea was also freed from itself.
The Japanese exterminated the ruling class. For example, current Korean cuisine is largely the food of the former peasantry, because the elite culture was wiped from the face of the country. Unintentionally, the savage Japanese attempt to crush Korean culture freed South Korea. In 1946, Korea had a nearly blank, if not blackened, slate to work with. With the old elite gone, Korea was free to absorb what it wanted to from Japanese, Chinese and American influences, adding it to the tough, resilient peasant culture that survived the Japanese purging.
Modern Korea is a direct descendant of that survivalist Korean peasant mindset. It owes very little to the past “glories” of the pre-colonial Korean “elite”. It owes everything to the stalwart, iron-willed Korean peasant culture that toiled away under the thumb of despots, foreign and domestic, for the better part of a thousand years.
I’ve seen nothing to suggest the contrary. South Korea is successful in large measure to the eraser-like effect that Japan had on it, a kind of trial-by-dire that burned away much of the good, but also took out much of the bad.
With different real objectives than it claimed at the time and different results than it intended, Japan removed Korea from the stream of Asian history at precisely the right moment. Korea avoided becoming the smallest and least significant corner of the modern Chinese empire, and as a historical bonus the parasitic, regressive Korean ruling class was irretrievably extirpated.
In 1946, Korea was freed to experience true social evolution (and revolution) for the first time in centuries. This has spawned not a renaisance, but a truly unique naissance. It was an almost unprecedented birth of what will, in the coming century, come to be seen as something akin to a new nation.
This is why Korea is one of the most exciting nations and cultures in Asia. And this is something Koreans are almost constitutionally incapable of appreciating about their country. They represent, in a very real sense, the newest Asian culture.
Instead of hiding this, Korea should embrace it and become what it now can, and what it likely always should have been. Hiding behind the choking folds of Joseon cloaks was what helped minimize Korea and make it small and irrelevant. Its tragic recent past may have pulled away the comfortable blankets, and this might be a difficult memory, but the result was accidentally positive.
Only children cling to blankets.
And in 2012, Korea is many things, but one thing it’s not, is a child.
The time to become a global player in the language world passed when the Joseon fell into a corrupt stew of its own making.
My personal belief is that the best thing to happen to Korea in the past 600 years was the passing of the Joseon Dynasty. However painfully it was achieved, achieved it was.
Viewed from a truly global perspective, Korea hasn’t had the cultural wherewithal to extend its cultural and economic and political boundaries for centuries. Without these, there’s no way a language can make its way in the world. But that may be changing. This change requires a change in the way Koreans view themselves and the way they see the outside world. It requires dislodging that massive chip on the shoulder and the reactionary sense of Korea as universal victim.
The only reason we’re writing in English is because the English were profoundly aggressive, extremely enterprising, econonically adventurous, politically astute and unapologetic about their success. They liberally stole ideas and concepts whenever it suited them. They were hopelessly pragmatic. They embraced their egos, while never thinking that past success guaranteed future enterprise. They never found a new idea they didn’t like and never failed to ditch any concept that didn’t serve them.
English people built and stole empires and invented much of the modern world, from science to art and even our intellectual framework. Communists and capitalists, engineers and literary critics, socialists and fascists, slavers and abolitionists, all referenced their work in concepts developed and articulated by English-speaking people. As colonizers, they were leagues and away better than the French or the Spanish, and may have been among the most effective colonial masters in the current history of the human race. Unlike the Spanish colonies, which were ruled as pirate fiefdoms, or the French, who were non-committal, or the Chinese who operated through subtlety and cultural bribery, the English mastered every element of colonization. They were the world’s greatest opportunists. As a military culture, since 1550 the English peoples remain unsurpassed in world history, with the ability to engage in types of dedicated warfare unheard of even in the courts of Ghengis Khan. In politics, English culture redefined diplomacy, accommodation and devilish deviousness. The characteristic that best describes the English experience is flexibility.
For better and worse, English now dominates the world. There are pale contenders in Russia, China, and France, and a few upstart Spanish offspring, but looked at dispassionately, English culture and language since the 10th century has been one of tenacious and bitter survival, self-righteous certitude, aggressive expansionism, unity in crisis, successful greed and deceit, while at the same time always capable of absorbing humility and pragmatically moderation. Call it an amoral history of conquest, but whether cultural, social, intellectual or political, you can’t call English culture myopic or unambitious. It definitely doesn’t lack energy.
Under the thumbs of its small-minded rulers, Korea was ambitionless and lacked even a joule of enterprise.
Whether Chinese, Japanese or English, Korea feels the pressure of cultural colonialism. As a minor culture, it augments the experience of other peoples. Koreans seem to feel this in their bones. They know it and they understandably resent it. So does everyone else in this situation. A lot of people instinctively resist. The French are famous for it, though it’s often laughable to watch how absurd this resistance is in practice. The Russian response to this cultural onslaught is real, if largely incoherent. The Germans have quietly acquiesced, and seem reasonably content with their not insignificant cultural position. The Scandinavians are happily abetting the whole process (from the English view, this is a very lucky improvement over the 9th-13th centuries, when it was working out very differently). The Chinese are opportunistically biding time in slightly doubtful cultural self-assurance. The Japanese live in their own discrete world and are happy to do so. The Arab world has been in shock, awe, revulsion and revolt since the 18th century against all things non-Arab, especially Western, and most especially English. This is the stuff of current events, too.
Why would Korea, a minor and until very recently almost insignificant and completely isolated cultural island, attempt to even begin to move into this cultural space? Not only is it an unlikely contender, it’s foolhardy.
Without the attendant trappings, such as a bit of imperialism and some profound social and cultural capital, the dream of Korean Culture Number One! is also hopelessly abortive. Such beliefs only lead to unfulfillable expectations and dashed hopes. Resentment ensues when these hopes are crushed.
This creates much of the “The rest of the world is keeping us down” attitude that occasionally surfaces in Korea.
The same old tune
Coming from Canada, I see the same patterns here that I recognize at home, though writ larger and in a longer historical context.
I recognize this because I sense some of the old Canadian elite academy in the idea that Korean can become a world language or that Korean culture is somehow about to conquer the world.
Canada suffers from similar delusions and dilemmas. As a country and culture, we’re obsessed with what we are and aren’t, and yet, in the quiet moments when we allow ourselves to stop thinking so damned much and just be, we are, in our own way, a testament to the human ability to adapt and grow in a larger ecosystem while still being independent and remaining ourselves. But the same false hopes are there, along with the same resentment when they inevitably fail to be realized, and with the same hollow bravado echoed among the shrill media who survive on anti-Americanism or vacuous boosterism. I’m told that Australians also understand this outlook, though I’m guessing our cousins in this respect are more likely the Kiwis.
I recognized it immediately in Korea. It tastes exactly the same.
Feeding this beast is a bad idea. Korea and the Korean language should be what they are, the best of what they are. Trying to be something else is both silly and ultimately self-mocking.
When it was unsure of itself and immature, the Canadian TV industry produced the same kind of barely watchable pap that Korea produced until recently. Only when the industry got over itself was it able to start creating and delivering things people wanted to watch, things that were set in Canada and made sense to Canadians, and also appealed to outsiders – largely because they were no longer self-conscious. The same was true of literature. Instead of being a genre, which is was right through the 70’s and 80’s, “Canadian literature” is now just a label for work done in English or French by Canadian authors. It’s a sign of maturity that still hasn’t infected much of the cultural academic world in Canada, which tends to lag badly instead of leading the edge. I suspect that, like Canada, Korean intellectual (and corporate or government) life is likely infested with people who live in rooms with one-way mirrors, the mirrors reflecting inward. The inhabitants don’t see out, only themselves.
I suggest that the Korean language and its boosters need to respect Korean for what it is and what it’s useful for, as a living language in its environment, and accept it, rather than trying to make up for what it’s not.